The road trip is an American rite of passage: grabbing a few close friends, piling into a beat up van and hitting the road, seeking adventure.
The development of expansive, long-running highways and improvements to the automobile has popularized the American road trip. In a matter of days, one could go from the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida to the Blue Ridge Mountains that cut through the Carolina’s and down into the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas.
This is the theme of a photography exhibition hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts. “The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip” brings together a wealth of famous photographers, providing their diverse perspective of the American landscape.
Organized by the Aperture Foundation, the exhibition premiered Feb. 9 and runs until June 4. Tickets into the museum cost $10 with a student ID.
Hector Santiago, a senior double majoring in biology and psychology, went out on the open road with his roommate and fellow student Kenneth Haynes over winter break. With a GoPro camera mounted on the front of the car, the two students drove up the East Coast toward New York City.
“It’s wild. You’ll go miles and miles only ever seeing a gas station, but then you end up in this big city,” Santiago said. “It’s like watching civilization evolve.”
He said that traveling through places like Philadelphia broadened his perspective of the United States and cemented into reality the things he learned about in history books.
“It takes you back and you see how far we’ve grown in such a short amount of time,” Santiago said. “It goes from these tiny old homes to skyscrapers.”
He said that the summer after next, he’d like to drive to Arizona because he hasn’t yet traveled out west.
“You could say I’ve had the travel bug and I just need to get back out there again.”
Santiago said that when he wants to revisit his memories, he picks up pictures of his travels. The other week, he and a few friends sent each other photos from their trip to Puerto Rico last spring.
“We were trying to plan for our next trip out there, and with everyone sharing you’d just think about the story behind that picture,” he said.
That’s what it feels like walking the halls of the new exhibition at the museum. From derelict gas stations to dusty diners, the photographs that decorate the museum walls remind viewers of places they’ve gone or inspire them about where they could go.
Robin Odell, the manager of photography exhibits at the MFA, said that of the 18 photographers with work in the exhibit, she enjoys seeing the handful of pieces that come from different countries.
The acclaimed Japanese photographer Shinya Fujiwara comes to mind. Fujiwara strikes a dark and absurd tone in the exhibit, taking photos of motels and cityscapes at night. He plays with exposure, blurring lines across photographs that stem from his “American Roulette” collection.
“It’s really interesting, a little less than half of the photographers are not American,” Odell said. “But you get to see an American tradition through their eyes.”
Much of the work harkens back to tropes made classic in popular culture. The novel “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac and movies like “Thelma and Louise” have served to inspire audiences across America to hit the road.
Robert Frank, one of the most famous photographers in the exhibit, has a number of images from his seminal work “The Americans,” which displays people from all walks of life doing seemingly mundane tasks. However, his attention and perspective comes through to show the beauty of living in the United States.
“This exhibit shows a sort of universal experience,” Odell said. “It’s a very American thing to do, to just get in the car and go.”
Odell said that she especially enjoyed the work of Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, a Swiss duo who take the cliche imagery of road trips and add a satirical element to it.
“They take the genre and turn it on its ear,” Odell said. “If you didn’t have the artists to populate the genre before them, then they couldn’t do what they did.”
With spring break just around the corner, students may want to hit the road with what little time they have. “The Open Road” could serve as inspiration for what to look for out on well-worn highways.
Top photo: Dakota Hair (2004), Ryan McGinley | Courtesy of the artist and Team Gallery, New York